President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's congratulatory letter to President-elect Barack Obama, the first of its kind in the thirty-year history of the Islamic Republic, has so far gone unanswered. President-elect Obama has understandably been busy with filling cabinet and sub-cabinet posts, as well trying to figure out what on earth he's going to do with the various messes he's inherited (including the Bush administration's jaw-dropping position on the situation in Gaza, an aerial bombardment with American-made F-18s and hellfire missiles that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and has handed yet another PR coup to would-be terrorists the world over), so it's not surprising that writing a thank you note to Mahmoud has not been on the top of his to-do list. Obama's advisors may have suggested that replying to the Iranian president will only strengthen his position in the run-up to the Iranian presidential elections of June 2009, and there may be some truth to that. However, it is also true that, much as when Lee Bolinger, the President of Columbia University, insulted Ahmadinejad before he delivered his speech there in 2007, the majority of Iranians will take a lack of response as an insult not just to Ahmadinejad (who some may even loathe as much as ordinary Americans), but as an insult to Iran, and Ahmadinejad's position could just as easily be strengthened with Iranians rallying behind their leader (as they generally did in support of him after the Columbia debacle), as it could be weakened by a lack of response.
President-elect Obama's foreign policy team should carefully consider how the Iranian people, as well as their government, will react to either an acknowledgment of Ahmadinejad's outreach or the insult of complete silence. Given that in almost every foreign policy issue that Obama will face at the end of January 2009 Iran will figure prominently; whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian-Israeli issue, or Iran's actual nuclear program; a response (or lack of one) to Iran's president is of far more importance than one might ordinarily think, for either choice will set the tone for future negotiations, something Obama has promised throughout his campaign. (For example, even if Ahmadinejad is not re-elected president next year and a more moderate "reformer" is, that reformer or "pragmatist" will have a very hard time convincing the hard-line conservatives, who will continue to have the Supreme Leader's ear, that the U.S. is ready to enter into negotiations on the basis of mutual respect.)
Should President-elect Obama decide to write to Mahmoud, his message need not contain anything he's uncomfortable with. In fact, even using the language of diplomacy (and not the language of Lee Bollinger), it can still raise the issue of discomfort with Iranian rhetoric and question her intentions. (Iranians can handle it, and believe me, their skins aren't any thinner than Americans'.) But with respect to the Iranian president's letter, the Obama team must take into consideration the centuries old customs and manners of proud culture, which requires an acknowledgment of some sort, even if laced with criticism. Perhaps it might read something like this?
Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad President, Islamic Republic of Iran
I am in receipt of your congratulatory letter of November 5, 2008. I appreciate the sentiments you've expressed on behalf of your nation; an ancient land with a great culture that has contributed much to civilization as we know it.
As you are aware, during my campaign I repeatedly said that I would be prepared, as president, to talk to leaders of nations that the United States has disagreements (or even conflict) with, and I intend to follow through with my pledge at the appropriate time. I will take this opportunity, however, to express my deep concern with much of the rhetoric, bellicose rhetoric emanating from Tehran, that serves no purpose other than to further divide our two nations and to unfortunately isolate yours.
As I have repeatedly said, I have been deeply troubled by not just Iran's nuclear program, but also its support of terrorist groups and the language Iranian officials use with respect to Israel, a U.S. ally. In addition, your questioning of the Holocaust, an undisputed historical fact, is also not only deeply offensive to me and other Americans, but hurtful to the many Americans who are either survivors (or descendants of both survivors and victims) of that human tragedy. It is still my hope, as I have publicly expressed it, that with a vigorous pursuit of diplomacy on both sides, the U.S. and Iran will find a way to peacefully resolve their differences in the coming years.
Barack Hussein Obama President-elect of the United States of America
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